The 2012 Academy Award Best Picture Nominees
A good standard against which to assay the strengths and weaknesses of the present set of nominees for Best Picture is by considering one of the great pictures of the past. My Fair Lady won eight Oscars in 1964, including Best Picture. It was both a critical and popular success. The things that stand out about it now, looking back, is partly that its music is so good and that you can’t beat a script written by George Bernard Shaw, which still tests, a hundred years after the original play was written, our understanding of the relation between men and women. You know Eliza and Higgins love one another but for the life of me I can’t imagine how they can sustain a relationship, much less a sexual one. Shaw did a bit better with Major Barbara, whose boy friend for most of the play (and the movie version too) is sort of a pet poodle, but who comes into his own because he argues with Barbara’s uncle, the munitions maker, and so they are a suitable couple for the new age where couples can be motivated, according to Shaw, by their mutually complementary causes rather than by passion. Shaw’s view did not sustain itself into the Twentieth Century as the way couples would relate to one another.
The great accomplishment of the movie version of Pygmalion was that it remained within its frame in two different senses. First, the individual shots were carefully framed so that they added up to a great set of fashion photography shots, as might have been expected of Cecil Beaton, who was the set decorator. Not only the Ascot racing scene, in which the black and white dresses set off a variety of very British and very pretty faces, Professor Higgins moving through them as if he were in the midst of the shrubbery at the Botanical Gardens. Much more refined than Ziegfeld, but a tribute to the beautiful girl nonetheless. The flowers at Covent Gardens were also photographed as if they were to appear in a magazine spread, and the grand tableau, of Eliza at Court, has the stateliness appropriate to a princess followed by a camera man so as to allow a spread in Life Magazine. The cinematography is essential to the movie, as it should be.
The second sense in which My Fair Lady is in its frame is that the audience becomes engaged in it as if it is not framed: as if it is simply a true rendering of life, however much another movie will deliver a different rendering of life, also seamless enough to be regarded as having verisimilitude, as providing, at the least, one take on what life really is. That is what is to be expected of movies and novels and plays and poems. As the cliché goes, each of the items in those formats is a world of its own in that it abides by its own rules, the critic left to judge how skewed a view that is of real real life. You care about Professor Higgins quirky personality because you know that he and Col. Pickering can indeed, as Professor Higgins’ mother says, play with their living doll as they see fit, and so experiment with turning a flower girl into a lady, the fact that they don’t sexually bother her just another sign of their eccentricities and Shaw’s unwillingness to pull out all the stops all at one time.
Most movies and novels are true to being contained within their frame. That is certainly true of the great movies of all time, whether Intolerance or The Godfather or even Citizen Kane, which uses its arch camera angles to intensify the mood of inevitability in a life of Cain that seems determined by random choices: to make a woman a star, to run for governor, to build a stately Xanadu. It is true of recent movies of significance: No Country for Old Men, for one.
This year, though, the Academy nominees for Best Picture include a number of films that do not exist within their frames. Rather, they call attention to the fact that they are movies and, more than that, to the fact that they are only movies in the sense that they are assemblages of images and plot devices offered up to the movie going public by a filmmaker with his own point to make rather than letting the movie direct its audience to whatever point the plot and images would make. This has been going on for a while. Clint Eastwood, who has made a number of polished Hollywood movies—so polished as to be, for me, lifeless—provided a sepia palette for his World War II movies that made them into objects of memories, to be regarded as if they were Hollywood war movies rather than the true to war epics that Hollywood by and large does not deliver, accepting some compromise between convention and reality instead. Over the top violent movies like Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds remind their viewers that the violence is overdone and so to be treated as comedy, the audience in on what the filmmaker is doing.
The result of distancing, of standing outside the frame, I suggest, is mostly disappointing. It is as if these movies, some of which, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, are quite good, are nevertheless out to prove that movies cannot ever be a post-modern medium because good movies are ingrained with their very concrete and luscious senses of reality. Revisiting the Gordon McRae-Shirley Jones Oklahoma reminds us that the show is a pastoral of an everything-in-its-place rural utopia. For a while, you live among the cornfields that had been planted so that they could be filmed. Rod Steiger is a hired hand not at all as menacing as Rod Steiger would be in his later roles. Reading “deeper” themes into this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which is what a recent stage production of it does, is silly, while seeing dark themes in Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey is obvious.
Consider this year’s nominees for Best Picture. The Artist is touted as something of a triumph because it uses the silent film to tell a story that does get the audience to look past the conventions of the silent movie and engage with the story. They did have faces then. But this is not gifted silent film making. There are just a few moments that are fresh rather than merely referrals to the way an audience might think silent films were, and in fact the movie is made up of quotes mostly from much later films. There are bits of Sunset Boulevard, A Star is Born, Top Hat and, of course, Singing in the Rain. Fine. Remember that there were no silent musicals and that just about all the dancing that does go on in this one is shown in the trailer for the movie. And back then, they had bodies and not just faces. I don’t know if the male lead was meant to be as heavy as Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., but he certainly seemed too old to be playing the Frederic March role in A Star is Born. There were some very good silent films made in the late Twenties. Go watch them. This one turns out to be not much more than a one joke contrivance. You enter the frame mostly to be pleased that you know you are inside a silent movie. Woody Allen has already done that in The Purple Rose of Cairo.
What can go wrong in stepping outside the frame is well exemplified by The Tree of Life, which tries to do so for high cinematic purpose. The movie is deeply religious. It tells about the way a father who is biblically stern raises his two sons, which is a most biblical theme. The relationships are complicated and convey just the complex refractions that go into all child rearing. That would allow the movie to stand on its own as serious, nothing less than might be expected from Terence Malick, who also gave us the very biblically inflected Days of Heaven.
Malick wants to go a step further than he has before by taking the audience outside the frame. He intercuts a segment about dinosaurs raising their young, as if this had anything to do with anything, and it does if you want to propound a biblical theme about how the world was created so as to allow the annealing of souls and that humans are like dinosaurs in being really very small in cosmic terms and here for a brief period of time, all of these creatures in some way doing the work of a very mysterious god. But the intercutting of shots of the early days of Earth and the sequence on dinosaurs does not work because these matters are so large and human families are so small that the comparison is laughable. That is very unlike 2001 where some of the allusions were unclear but where the entire film was structured around the idea that there are stages of mankind that succeed one another and that in the near future we will be on another one, all of these mediated by these gigantic monoliths which are as close to a godhead as Arthur C. Clarke was willing to admit. The problem is that the dinosaurs and the evolution of earth geology were a step outside of the frame of the movie rather than an image or allusion used within the movie, either earned by the movie or essential to its imagery. The director failed rather than created something different because there was no need to step outside the frame to comment on how important was the biblical tale he was telling. Less would have been more.
Woody Allen is the exception to the rule that stepping outside the frame does not work for movies. He has for a very long time played outside the frame, inserting himself as the director into the going on of things, perhaps most famously when he has Marshall McLuhan step into the scene to say that a pretentious person in line to see a movie has gotten McLuhan’s theory all wrong, or when Woody Allen goes over to a beautiful couple to ask them how they pull off such a fashionable life and is told by them that it is because they are superficial people. Some of the movies for which he is best known, like Broadway Danny Rose and Zelig, have the apparatus of being legends, and fully live up to that premise, overinflating their truths through them being retold.
Now Allen has made some in the frame movies that for me are his best, like Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, but this year’s offering, Midnight in Paris, jumps all the way out of the frame because it presents within the frame some cut out characters, Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Picasso as stereotypes at the same time as they are the alluring attractions of a time travel fantasy. The audience does not allow itself to notice how cardboard these characters are because we all daydream about meeting such people and Woody satisfies that desire, coming up with some fortune cookie wisdom about the past always seeming better. He even has Carla Bruni Sarkozy there as a museum guide who explains to the Woody character played by Owen Wilson that the secret of French love is that we love people in different ways. Now that is type casting. The charm of it all is so overwhelming, Allen still so gifted as a film maker despite his sometimes wooden dialogue and setups, that you don’t mind that this movie is oh such pleasant fluff, and that its real message may be that fluff is what we feel when our hearts are alive. I may be one of the few people who like Woody better when he really is serious.
Hugo is the most fully worked out of these films that operate outside their frame. Scorsese is, of course, a master story teller whose greatest works comfortably inhabit their frames. Goodfellas and Casino put the viewer in the scene as if the films were documentaries, and Raging Bull is a slice of life even if there is a lot of sweat spun off on the viewer by the fighters. Maybe that is what really happens in a boxing match. In Hugo too, there is an immediacy in Paris life, confined as it may be mostly to a train station, and the period displayed, which is some ten years after the Great War, is wonderfully rendered, as if seen through a window. That idea of life seen through a window is one of the guiding images of the movie. Its other great idea is to portray people as automatons or at least crosses between machines and humans. Sasha Baron Cohen gives an excellent performance as a partly crippled soldier who walks as stiffly as a manikin, and does not know whether to feel feelings and so make himself human, like Pinocchio. And the boy who discovers the then forgotten Georges Melies to still be alive becomes like an automaton in that he is overtaken by the machines he tends at the train station, lost amidst them. That is in keeping with the main theme that Melies used the magic of a machine to make dreams overt. The Frankenstein myth is given another go round.
The trouble is that Scorsese was doing all of this, I think, to show that 3D could be turned to artistic purposes, that a technological innovation could aid storytelling rather than just provide a useful gimmick to get children into movie theatres because most television sets in use cannot transmit in 3D, although some 3D sets are on the market. Scorsese is like Melies, and that, rather than providing a history of film, is his thematic rather than his technical purpose, although appreciating the theme means moving outside the frame to see the interaction of the filmmaker with his creation. The truth of the matter, however, is that 3D does not add very much, far less than it did to Avatar, which used 3D to show how long were the distances one could fall and how birds can swoop. But you can do that with 2D, as happened in Wings, the great silent. Avatar was a travelogue to an exotic place; Hugo is a trip to an amusement park machine where we run in and out to avoid being ground in the gear mechanisms. That is what we look at more than at the fairly plausible movie. I want to go back to being in movies rather than alienated from a movie. That happens when a viewer no longer notices that there is a frame, which is what can happen in 2D. That is very different from what happens in 3D and through other distancing techniques, where the movie makes a viewer seem to be in the frame but only because the audience is allowed to do that because it knows this is only a movie. Pointing out a sham doesn’t keep it from being understood as a sham.